The Heather van der Lely Foundation Trust is pleased to announce that research funding has been awarded to the following teams:

University of Newcastle – Principal Investigator, Dr Cristina McKean
‘Testing the efficacy of Building Early Sentences Therapy and uncovering mechanisms for change: a
theoretically informed language intervention for pre-school children with language disorder’

Abstract – Building Early Sentences Therapy (BEST) (http://www.buildingearlysentencestherapy.co.uk) is an intervention for pre-school children with severe language difficulties which aims to improve children’s use and understanding of sentences. BEST is based on ‘usage-based’ linguistic theory. The underlying principle is that by manipulating the nature and quantity of the language a child hears, BEST can promote abstract and flexible knowledge and use of a range of sentence structures, and so accelerate future language learning. For monolingual English speaking children, we will compare BEST with the Derbyshire Language Scheme (DLS), a widely-used intervention with no theoretical basis; and with the usual day-to-day language input in nursery (TAU: Treatment as Usual). We will also complete a series of single case studies applying BEST principles to therapy for children with disorders in languages other than English (LOTE), a group of children usually omitted from intervention evaluations.

We aim to determine whether:
• BEST is effective;
• The underpinning principles of BEST can be applied successfully across languages;
• It is the specific learning mechanisms exploited by BEST which promote change
• Aspects of children’s language profiles or their score on the GAPS test predict their progress in the different interventions

We will conduct two studies: A Cluster Randomised Control Trial (RCT) in English and a Case-series in LOTE. A total of 216 children aged 3;05–4;05 with severe language difficulties from 18 schools, will be randomised to BEST, DLS or TAU. We will deliver interventions in partnership with schools for 3 terms. The children’s language and functional communication will be assessed pre and post-intervention and at 4 months follow- up. Eight children aged 3;05-4;05 with severe language difficulties in their home language will receive BEST delivered in partnership with parents and/or bilingual co-workers. Children’s rate of progress before, during and after intervention will be compared.

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University College London – Principal Investigator, Professor Julie Dockrell
‘Language-learning needs on school entry: profiling phonology, morphology and narrative’

Abstract – Oral language provides children with essential skills to access the curriculum, develop literacy skills and engage with others. Significant numbers of children enter school without the requisite oral language skills at word-level, sentence-level and text-level. Teachers need reliable and valid measures to monitor progress through Reception and Key Stage 1 and to identify children struggling with oral language. The multicomponent nature of oral language makes this challenging for practitioners. Drawing on evidence about language learning needs and an understanding of language measures, the current study aims to identify measures that teachers could use in Reception and Key Stage 1 to profile language performance, monitor development, and identify children in need of further language support. Specifically, the study will examine the extent to which the GAPS test, developed by van der Lely and colleagues, in combination with a measure of narrative language and vocabulary, can meet teachers’ needs. A cross-sequential design will be used to assess the oral language profiles of 200 children (n = 100 Reception; n = 100 Year 1) at three time points on the GAPS, vocabulary and oral narrative. Measures are economic, time efficient, and appropriate for teachers. To establish validity of the measures and to provide an independent measure of language difficulties, children will be assessed on an omnibus measure of language at the first assessment point. The relationships between language skills and performance on school-based assessments will be examined to capture educational impact. Ultimately, we aim to provide teachers with information about which language skills can be reliably assessed over time and are associated with school-based assessments. The data collected will be the first UK data that can contribute to current debates about the subcomponents of the language system in early primary education, capture development over time, and directly examine educational impact.

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City, University of London – Principal Investigator, Helen Spicer-Cain
‘Very early predictors of grammatical, phonological and school readiness skills at school age in siblings of children with communication disorders’

Abstract – Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is a common communication impairment, affecting 7.6% of children at school entry (Norbury et al, 2016). Whilst most parents of children with DLD identify concerns about their children’s communication skills before 24 months, only a small proportion access speech and language therapy support before school (Rannard et al, 2004). There is therefore a clear need for research which addresses the identification of children with DLD earlier in life, enabling earlier support.

In this study, assessments of grammar, phonology and school readiness will be used to assess the skills of 92 children who were previously seen as babies aged 8-22 months. As babies, observations of play and phonological development were taken as well as novel ‘Dynamic Assessment’ (DA) measures (receptive language and nonverbal communication skills). DAs are training-style assessments which include prompts and measure how quickly a child can learn from these.

Importantly, this sample included 17 children at high risk of social communication disorder (later-born siblings of a child with ASD) and 22 children at high risk of language difficulties (later born siblings of children with language difficulties/delay or children of parents with diagnosed dyslexia). There were also 53 children whose first-degree relatives had no history of language/literacy difficulties. The proposed project seeks to follow up this sample in the early school years and evaluate the predictive value of measures taken in infancy for grammar, phonology and emergent literacy ability of the sample now aged 5-6 years. In particular, we will investigate whether measures taken in infancy are predictive of DLD at age 5-6 years, using the Grammar and Phonology Screening Test (GAPS), which includes tasks known to function as clinical markers of DLD.

This research will contribute to theoretical and clinical knowledge about pathways of language and emergent literacy development.

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University of Oxford – Principal Investigator, Professor Charles Hulme
‘ATLAS and GAPS Assessment Apps: development and standardisation’

Abstract – Oral language skills are a critical foundation for literacy, educational success and psycho- social wellbeing. Accurate, reliable and easy-to-use tests are needed to identify children with language learning difficulties.

The Grammar and Phonology Screening test (GAPS: Van der Lely, Gardner, McClelland, & Froud, 2007) is a short child-friendly, paper-based test that assesses sentence and nonword repetition. We have developed a short, but reliable, oral language assessment for children (The Automated Test of Language AbilitieS – ATLAS) as a computerised App. ATLAS runs on a tablet and is designed to be administered by teachers or teaching assistants. The App can be administered in under 10 minutes and scoring is automated via a secure website.

The current application is for funding to develop a tablet-based version of the existing GAPS test and to standardise both the ATLAS and the GAPS Apps in a nationally representative sample of 1000 children aged 3 to 7 years (250 children in each of 4 year groups from Nursery to Year 2).

If this application for funding is successful, the work could be used in different ways. Option 1 – we hand back the GAPS App and data to the remaining members of the development team to use as they see fit. Option 2 – we combine the GAPS and ATLAS tests into a single test, giving appropriate acknowledgement to those parts of the new test derived from the GAPS.
The creation and publication of either one or two automated tablet-based Apps to assess language skills will have important implications for the identification of children with language learning difficulties. The new test(s) will be an important research and clinical resource and will play a vital role in allowing education professionals to identify children who require language support and remedial teaching.

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City, University of London – Principal Investigator, Dr Fiona Kyle
‘Using the GAPS to identify pre-school deaf children at risk of later literacy difficulties’

Abstract – This study investigates whether we can predict which deaf children are at risk for later literacy difficulties from their preschool language and phonological skills, using the Grammar and Phonology Screening test (GAPS). Learning to read is challenging for deaf children and as a result many are significantly delayed in reading ability. It is crucial to identity deaf children at risk of reading difficulties BEFORE they start learning to read.

Preschool emergent literacy measures such as phonological skills, oral language including grammatical skills, and letter-sound knowledge are key predictors of reading for typically-developing hearing children. While our previous research has shown that vocabulary and phonological skills are predictors of reading outcomes in school-age deaf children, less is known about their predictive role in preschool deaf children and no measures are routinely used for this purpose. The GAPS is a ten- minute grammatical and phonological screening test that identifies hearing children at risk of reading difficulties but hitherto has not been used with deaf children. We will investigate the validity of using the GAPS, along with tests of emergent literacy, to identify strengths and weaknesses in preschool deaf children’s pre-reading skills. We will also explore whether the GAPS can predict later reading difficulties in deaf and hearing children.

We will conduct a two-year longitudinal study following a group of preschool deaf and hearing children. We will assess 50 pre-school deaf children (age 4) who use spoken language and a comparison sample of 50 pre-school hearing children, and re-assess them in reception and year 1 of primary school. If the GAPS is valid for use with deaf children, it could be utilised as a time-efficient screening toolkit for practitioners working with young deaf children. Early identification will help ensure children have appropriate support in place as they start to read.